Site icon

Normal Sadism, Weak Boundaries, and Social Unhappiness

I was having a discussion with someone about life in Korea–someone who feels pretty much like I do about it–and something interesting crossed my mind. It’s the concept of “normal marital sadism” that was coined by the therapist David Schnarch to describe the very common form of emotional sadism that seems to develop in a lot–a lot–of marriages. He published an article on the concept back in May of this year, in Psychology Today:

People who refuse to acknowledge their own hatred, vindictiveness, and punitiveness are the most pernicious people to those they love. You can’t learn to control hostile impulses you won’t acknowledge having. The problem isn’t the urge to be mean, because everyone has this at some point. Problems arise when you deny it, because you’re more likely to act it out. It’s better for everyone if you accept a picture of yourself having a malevolent side. Then if you’re wrong, there’s no harm, no foul. When you indulge yourself in a glorified self-perception, other people pay the price when you are mistaken.

What comes to mind immediately when I read these words is the glorified self-perception that I’ve seen among so many Korean parents, regarding the “sacrifices” they’ve made for their children… which are all too often trotted out as an excuse to make all kinds of unreasonable demands on their offspring, and for saying all kinds of horrible things to their kids.

Whether it’s consigning children to a routine of studying they themselves could never maintain–and which they themselves never did maintain as children, when the norms were radically different–or refusing to give an adult child permission to marry the partner of his or her choice, this kind of thing has always seemed much more common in Korea than in places like Canada and the United States.

In fact, as I’ve mentioned before here, Miss Jiwaku has argued, pretty convincingly, that the current generation is something of a Lost Generation for South Korea; born too late to have the bragging rights for The Miracle on the Han, and constantly reminded of the fact by parents who seem to have made it the cultural norm to micromanage their kids’ lives well into adulthood.

I’ll put it this way: basically, whenever a young person comes to me asking for advice about their career, relationship, or even searching for a reason not to kill themselves–yeah, I got a lot of that over the last seven years–I’m no longer surprised when it turns out they’ve been given the kind of advice that adds up to a sure recipe for despair. In fact, that’s the only thing consistent about the advice they’ve gotten: it pretty much always seems to be advice against doing what they want… to the point where usually I start all discussions of this kind with that question nobody else has ever asked them–no, really, that’s what they keep saying to me:

What do you want to do?

You’d think this would be the obvious starting point for any discussion with someone you care about, but most people I ask seem not to have been urged to consider that side of things: if they want to quit a job that’s making them miserable, they’ve usually been told they mustn’t. If they want to stay at their job, because it’s making them happy, they’re usually being pushed to quit. If they don’t want to go abroad and study English, their parents are forcing it onto them, whereas if they do want to go, that’s been forbidden to them.

Suffice it to say that most of the time I hear about parents’ or friends’ advice, it seems to (a) neglect the idea of the individual’s agency (and hence the argument I made in the essay linked here) and (b) maximize the unhappiness of the person to whom the advice has been offered.

Not only that, but a Korean friend of mine has commented, several times, on how objectionable normal happiness is to her family members. When she is with her family and her (Western) husband, and they express normal, healthy affection for one another, her family’s response is usually annoyance, complaints, and so on. It’s not the husband’s foreignness that is the issue, mind you: it’s the couple’s happiness. “When you show that you are happy,” she says, “you remind other people of how unhappy they are… showing your happiness makes them feel bad, and they can’t stand it.”

What I’m proposing is in fact that what Schnarch argues is commonplace in couples in the West–and I’d say is also observable in families, to a much lesser degree–actually manifests in Korea in many more social relationships, especially (but not only) in families.

Caveat numero uno: I know not all Korean families are like this, of course; but at the same time, just because it’s not universal doesn’t mean we should ignore how widespread it is.

Caveat numero duo: Yes, this does manifest in (many) Western families to some degree; but the degree is far lesser, and it is much rarer in other social relationships in the West than it is in Korea. Stick with me, and I’ll show you what I mean.

The Koreans I’m closest with usually express some kind of surprise when a Korean friend’s parent is more liberal, more invested in their kids’ self-determination and happiness than in some kind of vicarious fulfillment through the kid. Usually, an explanation is offered such as, “Well, my mom was widowed when I was little, and she changed a lot!” or “My father lived in Canada as a kid, so he’s more liberal,” or things like that.

And it’s not just in family relationships that this kind of thing shows up, either. Miss Jiwaku’s favorite example is from an elevator ride we took on campus, where a very pretty young woman who’d clearly spent hours on her appearance talked to some young men who boarded the elevator after her. Their comments on her appearance amounted to telling her she looked like a ghost, and like a dog. And no, those aren’t compliments.

But then, I’ve long found that Korean society’s biggest difference from the West is not Confucianism (we have our own ancient philosophy around to mess things up in our society too, and Christianity and Confucianism intersect at several unsavory points) but rather in its sense of personal boundaries. Westerners tend to construct boundaries around themselves in such a way that it is the individual’s choice to “let someone in”; by contrast, I find that constructing boundaries in this way in Korean society doesn’t work: you’re expected (coerced, guilted, pushed, etc.) into having extremely permeable, poorly managed boundaries… at least, within the context of any actual relationship.

Which explains why, when you’re walking down the street with a Korean and a non-mutual Korean friend of yours walks up, they’re as likely as not to ignore one another, and even to distance themselves physically, with one person wandering off until the danger is passed. One expat I know characterized this as being a way of avoiding new social connections because new social connections tend to entail having to suddenly do favors for more people, usually at the last minute. But I think it’s really just the only kind of boundary management that is acceptable in Korea: since you can’t draw healthy, natural boundaries once you’re in a relationship, you need to be very careful who you let into your social world.

I suppose it also explains that othe, very off-putting (to me) norm within the realm of customer service: that is, that the public service person often says things like, “Hello!” or “Welcome to _store name_!” and the customer, not bothering to say hello or thank you, speaks as few words as possible to them. To the tune of:

Server: Hello! Welcome to [restaurant name]!
Customer: One kimbab.
Server: Sure, I’ll get that for you right away. Please have a seat while I prepare it.
Customer: …
Clerk: Okay, that’s one thousand won.
Customer: … (silently hands over the money)
Clerk: Thanks very much! Come again!
Customer: … [silently leaves]

Not that I think people are wary of forming relationships with their local fast food place or anything; I think it’s just a kind of acquired habit: be as closed as possible, as often as possible, to avoid complicating your life with too many onerous social connections. However, it makes me kind of sad. Having worked in customer service myself, I can say that, at least in Canada, even the laziest clerks engaged in a decent amount of chat with customers, and it made the interactions more pleasant because customers usually reciprocated. For those Koreans reading this who wonder what I mean, here’s how I’d expect the above dialog to go in Canada:

Server: Hello! Welcome to [restaurant name]!
Customer: Hi. Quiet day, it looks like?
Server: A little bit. But it was busy at lunchtime… What can I get for you?
Customer: Oh, I’ll have a kimbab. [Well, okay, it’d be a sandwich, but whatever.]
Server: Sure, I’ll get that for you right away. Please have a seat while I prepare it.
Customer: Thanks. Oh, and I’ll have a coffee too.
[skip possible chit-chat.]
Clerk: Okay, that’s five dollars, please.
Customer: Alright, here you go.
Clerk: Thanks very much! Come again, and have a good day!
Customer: Right, see you… [customer leaves]

I want to emphasize, this isn’t an outgoing or excessively friendly customer: it’s about average for my own (long) experience working customer service in my youth. (Maybe seen through slightly rosy glasses, but not too rosy. Most of the problems I had working customer service had to do with the working conditions and specific staff members, not customers.) The really friendly people talk your ear off, and the really unfriendly ones are uncommon enough to warrant a comment after they’ve left.

And of course, living here, some of that has rubbed off on me. My expectations of how people will behave, for example. When I was visiting Miss Jiwaku in Jakarta, for example, some random Indonesian guy started talking with us. He was clearly well-to-do or rich, and not trying to scam us for money, and I was baffled and immediately on my guard… not because I don’t trust Indonesians, but because after so long in Korea, I didn’t quite know how I was supposed to react to someone being suddenly, spontaneously friendly and social with us. (Miss Jiwaku picked up on that right away and reassured me that this kind of thing is quite normal in Indonesia, but it took me some time to get used to it.)

I’ve changed in other ways, too, not only in my expectations:  for example, I react more like a Korean when I encounter Koreans engaging in the kind of emotional sadism I described above. I posted a while back about a party where someone obnoxious harassed me–at first, because I wasn’t speaking Korean, and then because my Korean wasn’t (by his estimation) good enough. Had it been in Canada, I would have probably told him to go annoy someone else, and I would have expected my friends not to be amused by the situation (after, say, the first ten minutes) but instead to tell him to, yes, get lost. But that’s not how it’s done in Korea; the asshole never gets told to fuck off, even when everyone knows he’s being an asshole. Because that would entail the kind of boundary-setting that is just beyond the pale here.

And I guess that’s why what manifests in North American society as “normal marital sadism” seems to manifest so much more broadly in Korean society: because where in North America, boundaries are mostly poorly-maintained and blurry between couples, but a little clearer in other social relationships, boundaries in relationships in Korea seem to be rather more difficult to establish, let alone maintain. Which is interesting, especially since it was here that I myself learned a lot about establishing healthy boundaries. (Though there’s always more to learn.)

Then again, I have a friend whose favorite argument is that Korean society is simply still in the throes of a kind of society-wide case of PTSD… which doesn’t sound exactly wrong either, though I’d note that I’d locate the cause as much in the excesses of the Park and Chun dictatorships as in the Korean War. That makes me wonder, though, about epigenetics… since brutal childhood (or even prenatal, vicarious) experiences can have an impact on one’s epigenetic legacy through one’s children. (Something that has been observed before, and hotly debated, in terms of the mechanisms by which the transmission of trauma occurs from Holocaust survivors to their children.)

Wow, I didn’t expect to say that much on the subject. Ah well…

Exit mobile version